Updated 8 p.m.
For eight years, Mark Carver has been in state prison serving a life sentence for the 2008 killing of UNC Charlotte student Ira Yarmolenko. Her body was found on the banks of the Catawba River, near where Carver was fishing the day she died.
But on Wednesday, a superior court judge said Carver deserves a new trial.
In overturning Carver’s 2011 conviction, Judge Christopher Bragg ruled Carver received ineffective counsel and said there are issues with the touch DNA evidence used as “the linchpin” of Carver’s first-degree murder conviction.
Bragg said Carver’s original defense attorney, Brent Ratchford, neglected to interview Carver’s family and friends who may have provided insights into Carver’s low intelligence level. Ratchford did not obtain Carver’s medical records. Carver’s current defense team argued during an evidentiary hearing in April that had Ratchford done that, it may have proven that Carver did not posses the physical strength to strangle Ira Yarmolenko.
"I hope somebody who has access to the evidence in this case will actually do a real investigation," said Carver's attorney, Chris Mumma of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, "because the murderer of Ira Yarmolenko has not been charged and is still out there and there is evidence to pursue and not just sit around and wait for the courts to fix their problems.”
Mumma questioned the validity of what’s called touch DNA, the primary evidence used to convict Carver in 2011, Carver’s DNA had been found on Yarmolenko’s car. Touch DNA requires only a small amount of DNA and can be easily transferred.
Judge Bragg expressed concerns over the little information regarding touch DNA in Ratchford’s case file. Bragg said Carver’s current defense presented evidence that the lab charged with testing the DNA was not using national best practices at the time.
Carver testified in his April evidentiary hearing but did not testify during his 2011 trial. In the April hearing, Carver testified that he never saw Yarmolenko or touched her vehicle.
Gaston County District Attorney Locke Bell disagrees.
"He (Carver) touched the car, in our belief. The judge said we haven’t proven that. If I touch something and leave my DNA on it that’s touch DNA, so if I touch a table and leave my DNA on it, it’s nothing wild."
Bell said he will appeal Bragg’s ruling. If he loses the appeal, Bell says he will retry the case. Bell has the option to drop the case altogether, although he’s said numerous times he believes Carver is guilty.
Mumma said the order is good news, but that there's a lot of work ahead.
"I’ve heard that Mr. Bell plans to appeal. I’m shocked to hear that in some ways and then in some ways I’m not surprised because he would never listen to the evidence before the evidentiary hearing," she said.
Outside the courtroom, Carver’s family hugged and cried. One family friend said the truth is finally coming out and that she believes Carver is coming home.
Before that can happen, Mumma will need to send the judge’s order to Locke Bell for his signature which will then be signed by the judge. Carver will then be transferred to the Gaston County Jail. Bail will be set at $100,000, the same amount he posted while awaiting trial the first time.